How can music affect our emotions?
Music affects all of us but when you really think about it the way in which a collective group of sounds can bring change to how we feel entirely it is such a strange concept. The epitome of this is possibly in films where music is quite literally used as a tool to control our emotions, telling us when we should be happy, sad, scared or angry. Imagine how different it would be if you were to watch a film with no music. Imagine that you were to see the two main characters finally share a moment of romance only to have the JAWS theme playing over the top. When you really think about it, music can even tell us what is going to happen, some spooky suspenseful music often signals to us some form of impending doom before the characters even know themselves. So, the question really is how?
The use of music in film to tell us how to feel points to a theory that emotions evoked by music can be forced or manufactured. Although we often have very personal responses to separate music there is still a collective understanding in a film audience about what emotion the music in the score is trying to portray. A study by music psychologists Thompson and Rabataille in 1992 attempted to prove this by asking a set of composers to write short and simple melodies to convey specific emotions whilst an impartial group of listeners were tasked to match each piece to the desired emotion, and most of them did. Not only does this back up the idea that a wide audience all have similar responses to music, the melodies composed for the study also show us some of the building blocks that can be used to manufacture these emotions. They found that the composers’ pieces for certain emotions were often painted from the same brush, for example angry pieces were often slower and used chromatic harmony to sound more intense and unpleasant, whereas peaceful music was also slow but used harmonies that sounded much nicer.
A separate study by Sloboda attempted to further pinpoint what it is in music that generates emotional responses. A study group of 83 people (33 professional musicians, 34 amateurs and 16 listeners) were asked to recommend three pieces which notably affected their emotions, and where possible, to pinpoint the moment in each piece that triggers the response. Whilst not everyone involved was able to pick out a particular moment, 165 pieces were recommended and 57 precise moments were put forward. The fact that only around a third of participants were able to select exact moments could possibly suggest that our emotional response to music is more about the feel of an entire piece than precise points, but when comparing the 57 moments suggested Sloboda was able to conclude that the majority of these were when something unexpected happened within the music. Of course these moments may have just been selected by the participants as they are the most memorable points but this also suggests that another way in which composers can force an emotional response from their listeners is to put specific moments of surprise in the piece. This may sound a bit strange but when you really think about all those tears lost thanks to Westlife (anyone?...Just me?), the powerful moments that really get us blubbing are often the big key changes at the end, and is it any surprise therefore that this method has become a staple of power ballads and supposedly emotional music throughout pop culture?
So, are emotions in music a myth? Are we naïve to think that these are authentic moments as opposed to textbook methods from the minds of composers?
I think not; yes of course there is an argument that there are standard teachings, for example in school I am sure many people heard the adage ‘major keys sound happy, minor keys sound sad’ but ultimately does this differ from actual emotion? It can sometimes be hard to separate as songs do often trigger responses in line with the emotion conveyed, but the listeners in the experiment who matched the melodies to the emotions did not necessarily go on a vast adventure of tremendous mood swings, embodying entirely different emotions with each new piece; they simply identified the standard building blocks that the composers used. After all, they were asked to match what they thought the composer was conveying, not what they felt themselves. This is the same for music in film, whilst we may be able to identify that the music sounds like the representation of a certain emotion it does not necessarily make us feel this way, and if we are happy when the happy music plays it can often be credited to our immersion in the stories and character of the film itself. Of course I am not denying that an amazing score can make these moments more iconic, tear-jerking or emotional, and we can all think of examples to show this - just look into anything by John Williams - but rather that just because music conveys emotion it does not mean that we suddenly feel the very same emotion. In support of this, I’d say that our emotional responses to music are much more personal and actually come from a much deeper place than whether they sound happy or sad. The link of music and memory is a key part of this in which old songs may remind us of certain people, events or time frames in our lives; these may be good memories or bad memories and this is more likely to be what triggers the emotional response. After all, the most joyful sounding song in the world could be entirely traumatic to someone should it be connected to an unfavourable memory.
So, there is an answer to how composers can represent emotions in music, and it is possible. There are certain sounds or techniques that we understand to represent certain things, this possibly comes from our society, enforced by the moments we see in films backed up by music to match the emotion on screen, or the melody we hear in a song where the lyrics strongly represent a specific feeling. However, there is also a separation between being able to identify a portrayed emotion and actually feeling that very same thing. We are all able to determine what emotion a song has but this is not necessarily the emotion we have as a listener.
Thompson, W. F., Robitaille, B. (1992). Can composers express emotions through music? Empirical Studies of the Arts, 10(1), 79-89. doi:10.2190/nbny-akdk-gw58-mtel
Sloboda, J. A. (2005). Exploring the musical mind: Cognition, emotion, ability, function. Oxford: Oxford University Press.